As I’ve written before, my dad has read Mr. Dog’s Christmas to me every Christmas Eve since I was two years old. I don’t remember those very early readings, of course. In fact, I don’t have recollections of Christmas until my sixth—a Christmas that’s immortalized in my family for an incident that ended with me being sent to my room. It’s also the Christmas that marked my transition from believer to playing-along-er.
One of many magical Christmases past.
By my sixth year I was beginning to explore the frontier of skepticism. And of course, Santa Claus is an easy target for the budding skeptic. At the same time, I still very much wanted to believe. It’s a tentative dance many kids do around that age: to believe or not to believe. I think at some level, even when we’re young, we know it’s a choice.
My parents heartily encouraged believing. They went all out to make Christmas a truly magical experience. Among the many weird and wonderful rituals they established was the burning of the wish list. My list was not written out in advance, nor mailed to the North Pole via the good old postal service. Instead, on Christmas Eve, I’d settle down with pen and paper and carefully transcribe the list of goodies I was hoping Santa would bring for me at Christmas—the list I’d been I’d been yammering on about for weeks. Then, with great ceremony, I placed my paper in the fire. My parents explained that it would magically transform into some kind of smoke signal that Santa would pick up as he was flying over our home in his sleigh, so he’d know just what to leave under our tree.
Well, just a day or two before this particular Christmas, while shopping with my mom, I spied a little box of pink soaps in the shape of roses. And I fell in love with them, in the way only a six-year-old girl can do. I couldn’t stop thinking about them. On Christmas Eve, as I sat by the fire finishing up my wish list, I had the brilliant idea to ask Santa for the soaps.
Almost immediately, another thought occurred to me: You know, Betsy, this whole Santa thing might not be real. I pondered that for a bit, wobbling back and forth between belief and skepticism. In the end, my lust for those soaps and my faith in Old Saint Nick prevailed—onto the list they went! Vaguely troubled by uncomfortable thoughts (What if the soaps don’t come? Will that mean Santa’s not real?), I decided it was best not to tell my parents about the last minute addition. I popped my list into the fire before anyone was the wiser and toddled off to bed.
That Christmas morning was even more gloriously exciting than usual, thanks to my giddy anticipation of the soaps. I don’t actually remember a lot about that Christmas morning. I’m told there were a lot of presents under the tree, but I don’t even remember opening any of them. What I remember is the question running silently through my head all morning: Did he bring the soaps??? Finally, when it seemed that every last present had been opened, I wasn’t satisfied. I searched under the tree, behind the tree, around every square inch of that tree for one more tiny box. It wasn’t there. I turned to my parents and said: “Is this all there is?”
It strikes me as I write this now how freighted those words are—Is this all there is? This that we can see and touch and verify and explain rationally? Or is there something more profound, more magical, going on behind the scenes, something even grander than the reality we experience on a day-to-day basis? Many of us want to believe there is.
Of course, I wasn’t that philosophical at the time. And, as you can imagine, that’s certainly not how my parents interpreted my question. They had no idea what I was talking about. I had just received a cornucopia of amazing gifts. My reaction must have been quite beyond belief. I was encouraged, shall we say, to go to my room and ponder my many blessings.
Despite the traumatic ending to my sixth Christmas, the holiday continued to be a truly magical time for me. And it’s still my favorite time of year, not least because it’s a reminder of what I love best about my family—our shared, playful reverence for the rituals.
My first memories of Mr. Dog were made the following year, when I was seven. We had just moved to Ukiah, where we lived in a house high on a hill—it was remote and Deep Woodsy in a way—and it’s the first time that I remember my dad reading the story to us. It was a wonderful Christmas, as they’ve all been, every single one of them. Even though I didn’t believe in Santa anymore, in my heart I was able to suspend that disappointment by participating fully in the magic that I then understood my parents created, and in finding ways to create it for them and my brother.
I think this must be one reason Mr. Dog’s Christmas is so special to me—not just because of the beloved reading ritual, but because of the way Paine so deftly handles the question of Santa's realness. He shows us that the shock of discovering the truth is quickly forgotten when you realize that someone you love has gone to incredible lengths to create a too-good-to-be-true experience for you. Someone you love loves you enough to create magic for you.
Having now been through many Christmas stress miracles myself, putting on the show for my own child, my appreciation has deepened. This thing that we do for one another and why we do it, the love and the creativity that go into it, is what makes Christmas so enduringly enchanting for me.
Tiny soaps that look like roses, a jolly fat man in a red suit who delivers presents from a flying sleigh, people who love you enough to break the bank and stay up all night to deliver a not-to-be-believed show for you…. Life is full of magic. Maybe it’s all there is.